Géza Csáth

The Magician's Garden

Translated by Judith Sollosy

Two tall, slender fellows passed through the station gate and headed towards the square. I recognized them the moment I laid eyes on them. They were the Vass brothers.

We went into town together, a pleasurable experience on that mild June afternoon. We had been inseparable in school, but had not seen each other since our graduation four years previously. The Vass boys were studying abroad, and now were as glad to see me as I was to see them.

Their features had not yet hardened into men’s. Their aquiline noses and lively eyes were typical of men of late-maturing intelligence. Their manners were as worldly and genteel as ever, highly unusual in school boys, yet somehow attractive to us all.

We walked down Main Street and across the square. Having but two hours to spare, the brothers were pressed for time.

“To tell the truth,” the older Vass boy said, “we have come only to take a quick look at the Magician’s garden.”

“The Magician’s garden?” I asked. “Where is that?”

“You wouldn’t know, of course. We never told anyone about it. Will you come with us? It is not far.”

From the main square we headed for the church. We crossed the park. Our old theology professor was planted on his usual bench, his nose into a book. We hailed him. He responded with a friendly wave of the hand. Next, we circled the church. The boys led me into a dead end street which I had no idea was there. It was narrow and about two-hundred paces long. How very peculiar! Never had I seen houses like that in our town before! They were low and crude, yet there was something quaint about them – the molding of a window, or some carved detail, or the shape of a gate. Hoary old men and pale, sad-faced women were lounging on stools and benches, and diminutive little girls were sweeping and sprinkling the ground. There was no sign of carriage wheels anywhere.

When we reached the last house, we halted. The house itself was not visible except for the fence, a high, unpainted affair put together of planks so closely slatted you couldn’t stick your hand through it, and you had to lean very close to see what was on the other side.

I was immediately struck by the heady fragrance of flowers. There was a garden on the other side of the fence no bigger than a room, a tiny room, a plot of ground raised by fill to the height of our waists. But the whole garden was replete with a great profusion of flowers!

That garden was a strange, luxuriant world of flowers with long stems and horn-shaped petals of black velvet; in one corner a white lily bush stood drooping from the weight of its giant calyxes; and scattered throughout the garden were short, thin-stemmed white flowers, each marked by one pale-red pedal. It was these, it seemed, that were giving off that unfamiliar, cloying smell which made your head reel when you breathed it in. In the middle of the garden stood a tall cluster of corpulent, ruby-red flowers. Their fleshy petals, smooth and shiny as silk, dipped down into the tall, poison-green grass. This small garden of wanders was, indeed, like a kaleidoscope; lilac irises opened their petals in front of my very eyes, the scent of a hundred different flowers combined to produce an intoxicating perfume, and were resplendent, too, with every color of the rainbow.

In the back of the garden, across the fence, squatted a tiny house, its two green-shuttered windows nearly touching the ground. There was no door to be seen. Above the windows the roof came to a peak, hiding what must have been a large attic. In front of the windows I spotted some blue carnations. We must have gazed, awe-struck, at this tiny, ten-by-ten realm of wonders for four minutes at the very least.

“So then. This is the Magician’s garden,” the younger Vass boy said.

“And the Magician lives in that house,” his brother added.

“Not to mention the thieves.”

“What thieves?” I asked.

“The thieves. The Magician’s slaves and followers.”

“They go into town to steal things. They take off just around now, sneaking through underground tunnels. They reappear in the church attic and let themselves down the bell-tower rope. They have small oil lamps hidden under their brown cloaks, and they carry masks and daggers and pistols in their belts.”

“They sneak into the houses, or climb in through the windows. Quick as a wink, they scale the walls with their small picks, then heave themselves through the dark upstairs windows the people of the house have inadvertently left open.”

“Then they hide inside the closets.”

“Nobody in the house spots them as they sequester themselves among the clothes and boxes. They light their tiny oil lamps, and wait.”

“They wait until everyone is asleep. Then they come out of hiding, stalk through the rooms, break open the locks, cut off the children’s heads, and plunge their daggers into the fathers’ hearts.”

“And they haul their treasures back to the Magician.”

The boys related the secrets of the Magician’s lair as if reciting some ancient, long-forgotten ballad, and all that time, we never once averted our eyes from the garden.

“Are you thinking of what’s going on in there right now?” the younger Vass boy asked.

His brother replied for me. “There, behind that shuttered window, is where the thieves sleep. It’s a low, plastered hovel. There’s a flickering lamp on the wall. To the right and left, six straw mattresses are lying on the floor. Six thieves are sleeping on one side, huddled close together, their faces hidden from view.”

“On the other side, the six beds are empty.”

“The thieves have set off through the underground tunnels to go about their bloody deeds.”

“When they wake up, they have to climb out of their room on all fours. The place is too low. They can’t stand up.”

“The Magician feeds them. His wicked black eyes seem to say, ‘Go on, eat your fill, and bring back untold riches, much silver, and much gold.’”

“The thieves feed on live toads and lizards. For a special treat, they get aged May beetles that the Magician keeps stored in glass jars in the pantry.”

“Then they set off. The Magician lights a lantern, which he keeps in a skull, and waits up in his room. He reads. He keeps an eye out, lest his thieves get into a fix.”

“Lest the dogs or the children should awaken.”

“And when the eastern sky begins to turn dull gray, he comes out here, and lies down in the garden.”

“And then the flowers are transformed into beautiful girls, and he rolls around among them.”

“He frolics with them until the thieves come home, and then he takes their treasure and stores it away in subterranean storerooms. Then they all go to sleep. And then the house is still and quiet, with not a soul stirring, until the night comes once again.”

“Of course, the neighbors don’t know who lives here.”

For some minutes, we gazed at the Magician’s garden once again in complete silence. Then one of the Vass boys glanced at his watch.

“Our train leaves in twenty-five minutes,” he announced, heaving a sigh.

“Time to go,” the other Vass boy added.

By now the stars were up in the eastern sky and the street was as still as a graveyard. Except for us, there was not a living soul anywhere to be seen.

We headed back, the two Vass boys gazing ahead, deep in thought. None of us broke the silence until we reached the church. We circled the park, where three servant girls were drawing water from the well. They were pretty, and their laughter was light-hearted.

The oppressive perfume of the Magician’s garden was slowly lifting from our lungs. A hansom passed by. The Vass boys hailed it, smiled, and hopped on. The driver cracked his whip, and the boys took off for the brightly lit main street of town.